Greater deficits have been overcome in college football history, but none were more improbable than UT’s 30-27 overtime victory over LSU. In truth, if you were to compile the facts and put it in form of a screenplay you’d be laughed right out of Hollywood.
Consider the circumstances: Rick Clausen, who played his high school football just a short commute from the movie capital of the world, brought a Tennessee team that had scored just seven points in its last eight quarters of play, back from a 21-0 half-time deficit with 30 second half points on the road against the No. 3 ranked team in the country, on a campus he had transferred from after being buried down the depth chart after his sophomore season.
Furthermore, he did it seven days after essentially being benched in favor of Erik Ainge, who head coach Phillip Fulmer had anointed his starter for the remainder of the season. Oh yeah, Clausen also performed this fabulous feat wearing a number that’s slated to be retired next season in recognition of Peyton Manning.
In the process, Clausen kept Tennessee’s title hopes alive in a place known as Death Valley, while avenging a 2001 SEC Championship Game loss to LSU that cost the Vols a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and a shot at the national title. That defeat was the last meeting between these SEC teams and came one week after UT upset Florida in Gainesville which marked his brother, Casey Clausen’s, high-water mark in three plus years as the starting quarterback at Tennessee. In another unlikely juxtaposition of fate, the Vols victory over the Tigers came nine days after they suffered a disappointing 16-7 defeat to the Gators in Gainesville.
Of course, Rick Clausen has proven experience pulling the Vols fat out of the fire. A third string signal caller behind two true freshmen in 2004, he as all but forgotten until Ainge and Brent Schaeffer went down to season-ending injuries on consecutive Saturday’s last fall. Clausen stepped into the breach and brought consistency and production to an offense that often sputtered. He led UT to three wins as a starter and captured MVP honors in the Cotton Bowl.
Despite his sparkling play and superior experience, he had to fight for the starting in the spring against Ainge — a battle that continued through preseason workouts in August. He performed better than Ainge in scrimmages but didn’t win the starting job.
However, he did earn playing time and again was clearly better than Ainge in the season opener. That was good enough to give him the start against Florida but he was pulled in favor of the sophomore QB who led Tennessee to one touchdown in three quarters of play. Clausen threw only five passes in his start against the Gators.
Three days later Fulmer announced he would no longer rotate quarterbacks and the job belonged to Ainge. In response, Ainge said the decision gave him a boost of confidence, knowing he wouldn’t be pulled after making a mistake. But he never appeared confident against the Tigers, wilting in the heat and pressure. He fumbled on UT’s first possession leading to an LSU TD. His last play in which he flipped the ball underhanded in the air attempting to avoid a safety looked like it came right out of a Three Stooges short. On that same play, he apparently hurt his back, ushering Clausen’s entry into the contest.
Immediately, UT’s offense seemed to respond to Clausen’s poise and steady leadership. By the start of the second half, it was completely transformed as the consistent Clausen pecked away with the short passing game, getting the Vols into a rhythm, picking up blitzes and making proper reads.
Make no mistake, the Vols need to repair Ainge’s confidence as he is one play removed from the starting job. He needs to build playing time and experience for the future. Yes, he has a stronger arm than Clausen, but there’s a lot more to being a successful QB than a rifle arm. You also need nerves of steel, resiliency, courage and the ability to make quick decisions under pressure. It’s also about distributing the ball to personnel that can make plays. Most of all, it’s about how the team responds to a signal caller’s leadership.
Clausen’s intangibles are untouchable as should be his status as the starter this season.